The making of a global phenom unleashed in the A-Leagues

This piece was originally published in 2021.

Sam Kerr is running. From box to box and back again. 

Not on her coach’s orders – no, that much is clear as her teammates relax pitch-side at the end of a light training session 48 hours before their next game.

Eager to protect his star player but helpless to combat her unbendable power of will, Kerr’s coach watches on realising there’s no point telling her to slacken off. 

Sam Kerr is running box to box because she has to. Because she’s unwilling to slow down until she becomes one of the best players in the world.

Bobby Despotovski remembers that Thursday night training session very well. As a prolific scorer in the National Soccer League and the A-League’s first Johnny Warren medallist, Despotovski – coach of Perth Glory’s W-League (now Liberty A-League) team from 2015-20 – had a sage eye for the art of striking.

“It was a light session, we were protecting the players and the loads were reached,” Despotovski recalls.

“It was not enough for Sam Kerr. It was a very low profile sort of a training session: kick the ball around and off you go.

“All the players are sitting down and she’s doing the runs from box to box. I came out of the changing room and (turned) to (Jessine Bonzas) my assistant.

“I said ‘look, that’s why she is the best. Have a look at the other girls and what they’re doing, they’re sitting down, talking… and the girl is running. Sam Kerr is running box-to-box because the training session wasn’t enough for her’.

“If she doesn’t have enough in training sessions she’s going to run, she’s going to make somebody cross the balls to finish, to practice, because she wanted to be the best.”

Sam Kerr’s journey to the footballing summit began on her W-League debut in 2008, at 15 years of age in the league’s inaugural campaign.

Side by side Kerr and the league would grow with each passing season, but at that stage – much like the league itself – the potential of an emerging Kerr wasn’t always fully grasped by those who watched on.

Everyone knows now of course.

The Chelsea FC superstar toppled the CommBank Matildas’ all-time goalscoring record with her 48th goal for the Green and Gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August. She has since broken the all-time Australian record held by Tim Cahill (50).

But in 2008 the launch of the formerly named W-League was perfectly timed for Kerr and a clutch of those who now make up the core of the CommBank Matildas, and showed why figures such as Tom Sermanni, the national head coach of the time, had been lobbying hard for a national competition.

After debuting in the W-League, Kerr would make her Matildas bow just months later under Sermanni.

“The first thing that struck you about Sam is how dynamic she is,” Sermanni said. “Even back at that age, she was just somebody who would do something and you’d go ‘wow, who’s this girl?’ She just had those qualities.

“People talk about playing with a smile on your face, and playing football like you really enjoy it, and giving everything you can – she had that from the minute she walked in the team. I think she’s still got that. She’s a hardened professional, but she still plays football like she’s playing in the backyard for fun.

“All the players started coming (into the CommBank Matildas setup) as real youngsters around that time.

“What enabled us to do that was the fact they could play in the W-League, and we could start comparing them. We knew these players had potential, but you could then start comparing them in competition against senior national team players. 

“Until you actually see that, you’re never quite sure when to introduce young players, or bring young players through the system.

“I think that was the critical role the W-League played… it gave us a benchmark to measure players in a meaningful competition against the other best players in the country.”

Kerr’s early development through the W-League served up its fair share of challenges.

At the end of her initial stint in Perth an ACL tear suffered in Matildas camp kept Kerr out of action for the entirety of 2011/12. Kerr returned from injury in the Sky Blue of Sydney FC for two seasons, before heading home to play for club stalwart and then-Glory head coach Jamie Harnwell in 2014.

It was under Harnwell, and alongside legendary Matildas striker Kate Gill, where Kerr got her first genuine taste of playing down the middle in a W-League outfit. 

Moving off the wing to spearhead an attack fed into Kerr’s natural skillset. She ended the 2014/15 W-League season on 11 goals – one behind strike partner Gill in the race for the league’s Golden Boot.

Much like Despotovski, Harnwell was struck by Kerr’s dedication to every aspect of her training, as she embarked on her first steps away from wing play to ultimately become Australia’s record-breaking spearhead.

“The most impressive thing for me was how she went about her training every day,” Harnwell said.

“You could tell she was a natural leader, she wanted to win, she’d drive players on in training.

“For someone who was still at a relatively young age, her dedication to getting better in what she wanted to do was the thing that shone through, and the thing that’s continued to serve her so well.

“Certainly the after-training finishing (practice), we had some really great role models, Kate Gill would do the same thing, she’d be doing extras, Collette McCallum had been around the game for ages taking free-kicks and doing the works.

“Sam was dedicated to making sure that whatever she needed to do she did.”

Harnwell’s departure at the end of the 2014/15 campaign saw the arrival of Despotovski, the club’s record-holding goalscorer who would go on to lead Glory through the following five W-League seasons. 

As he watched Kerr work tirelessly on developing her craft under the lights of Perth’s suburban training grounds, Despotovski believed her rise to the top of her craft was a foregone conclusion. But in the early days that belief was dismissed by all those he told – including the one person he needed to convince most.

“(People said) that I’m crazy. She said it herself,” Despotovski remembers.

“At one of the training sessions we did some kind of a review. I was pointing out certain things, she was explaining her ways, how she thinks, stuff like that.

“Funnily enough, before that I was watching three or four games on the national level and I was watching some of the top (American) strikers. It just sort of slipped out that she can be the best footballer in the world if she starts converting chances.

“I said to Sam once upon a time that ‘everything that comes your way is because of your hard work’. 

“She’s willing to work seven days a week, two or three times a day. Whatever it takes to succeed.

“I’ve worked with many athletes but none like Sam Kerr.”

After an injury-stricken first campaign under Despotovski, Kerr scored 40 goals in 35 appearances over the following three seasons, winning two consecutive W-League Golden Boot awards and taking outright ownership of the league’s top scorer honours with her 70th strike, which was to come in Perth’s 2018/19 Grand Final loss to Sydney FC – Kerr’s final domestic game on Australian shores to date.

A TALENTED Australian Rules footballer as a child, Kerr’s choice to commit to the W-League and Matildas as a teenager was the right one in the eyes of Despotovski.

The Glory legend says that decision is vindicated when he sees Kerr displayed alongside the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo on Nike billboards plastered around the world.

“We as a club, not necessarily myself as a coach, but we as a club, Perth Glory in WA, we played one small part in her development to the greatness,” he said. 

“One part is coaching, one part is providing the environment for her to come back home all the time… her family is from here, so she wanted to come home because she’s on the road all the time – that plays a part.

“That makes me very, very happy that as a whole WA state we played a small part in her development to the greatness. It’s as simple as that. It’s not me, it’s not you, it’s not anybody else, it’s the whole state that took her under (its) wing and provided the environment for her to actually be the best.”

From the W-League to the national team, Kerr’s infectious nature and bubbly persona has followed wherever she’s travelled. 

She’s enriched the Australian football landscape with a personality that bleeds into her game: the energy, the resilience, the willingness to have a crack at any opponent, no matter their stature or the perceived difficulty of the task at hand.

These are the qualities which helped Kerr become what she once leaned on in the game: an idol and a role model for young Australians emerging through the W-League with dreams of netting goals in Green and Gold. 

When the competition’s 2021/22 season kicks off in November, a host of youngsters will be out to show they could be the W-League’s next Sam Kerr.

“She is the typical Aussie,” Sermanni said. “She will take on anybody, will not get intimidated, will give it her best shot and win, lose or draw she’ll go onto what’s next,” Sermanni said.

“Sam Kerr is the leading light, but I think if you look at the W-League you could go through virtually every Matilda that’s in the squad now, and the W-League played a significant role in them getting to where they are, and giving them that stepping stone to the Matildas.

“(Playing in the W-League) gives the players the confidence to say ‘we can go and play against any team in the world, and beat them on any given day’. 

“The W-League played a critical role, and still is playing a critical role (in developing players like Sam Kerr)…This is a great opportunity to start developing the next phase of national team players.”


“When I took the (United States head coach) job in 2012, the media guy for the US had been with the team, and I’d known him since the 90’s, and he’s still with them,” Sermanni added. “The first thing he said to me was the team he hated playing the most was Australia.

“He said ‘the reason I hate playing Australia is that the Australians always thought they could beat us’. 

He said ‘nearly every team in the world before we walked out on the field he knew they thought they can’t beat the US (but) the Matildas were different: they were a team that no matter what the circumstances were, you looked at them and they always felt they could go out there and beat anybody’.

“I think that’s a Sam Kerr trait, I think that’s a trait of a lot of the players in the national team, but I think it’s also something the W-League helped to cement, to give these young players confidence to go out onto the world stage.”